By: Victoria Yates

Confucius  - Kong Qiu (孔丘) or Zhongni (仲尼). His life was widely documented after his death and many writers merge legend and myth with fact, making it difficult to fully understand who the real man was. However, there is general agreement that he was born in 551 BCE in the Lu state (located in the south of what is now the Shandong Province). He is widely believed to have grown up in an impoverished environment, and there are varying accounts as to how he came to be in that state. According to some his mother (a concubine) left her home upon the death of his father for fear of being mistreated by the widow. Others believe his family settled in the area where he would be born following his great-grandfather’s flight from the turmoil of his native Song where he was a member of the Royal State. His later life, again disputed, is recorded to have included the death of his mother when Confucius was still a teenager, and his marriage a few years later to a woman from the Quigan family who he would later abandon in order to pursue his ideals.

Tradition holds that Confucius studied ritual with a Daoist master as well as separately learning music and lute playing. He is said to have gathered around himself a group of disciples in Lu whom he taught as well as being heavily active in politics. Confucius held strongly to a desire to bring Chinese civilisation to perfection, and to revive the properties of the classical Western Zhou Dynasty in order to form a ‘great, harmonious, and humanistic society’. 

It was at the age of fifty that Confucius was recognized and appointed Minister of Public Works and the Minister of Crime by Duke Ding of Lu. However Confucius is believed to have angered members of the nobility of Duke Ding that led to him having to leave office and go into exile. Travelling with his disciples Confucius sought a position elsewhere but found instead only indifference and, at times, danger and hardship. Much of what is reported of this time seems to be a retelling of stories laid out in ancient Chinese songs that speak of alienation and suffering (common to heroes of early Chinese civilisation). It again therefore remains unclear what was the fact and what was the mythologized fiction.

By 484 BCE Confucius is believed to have returned to Lu in order to teach and write. He worked on ancient writings, putting them in order as well as editing current annals. It is from this work that Confucius came to be associated with many canonical texts, eventually known as the ‘Confucian Classics’. His thoughts are most clearly understood as expressed in the Analects. It is however a controversial piece of writing as much of it was compiled after the death of Confucius not only by his disciples but also by their disciples.

In Book X, there are a variety of personal descriptions of Confucius and his manner that some take as biographical in nature, while others argue they lay out the basic rules by which gentlemen should dress and behave. Despite the uncertainty, it was passages within this text that made Confucius the model by which Chinese officials behaved for generations.

Despite the confusion surrounding his true biography, Confucius has proved to be one of the world’s most influential thinkers in numerous areas, including personal, social, philosophical, and political thought.

In the social arena, Confucius saw humans as living within firm parameters set out by the divine, and yet felt that we are wholly responsible for our actions and our treatment of those around us. Although we cannot alter the span of life for which we are fated, we are, according to Confucius, solely responsible for what we achieve and what we are remembered for. He was keen to ensure that no one saw him as a creator of thoughts and ideologies but rather as a vessel that transmitted and reiterated ancient practice.

The centre of Confucius’s social philosophy lies in ren or ‘loving others’. In order to practice ren one needs to put the needs of others before one’s own; avoiding artful speech or other characteristics that would lead to false impressions or an increased sense of self-importance. Confucius set out his Golden Rule “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others” (Lunyu 12.2,6.30) which, if followed, is the embodiment of this kind of apathetic care being advocated.

Another facet of his social teaching was in his emphasis on self-restraint and respect for society, one’s elders, and ritual, “Look at nothing in defiance of ritual, listen to nothing in defiance of ritual, speak of nothing in defiance or ritual, never stir hand or foot in defiance of ritual.” (Lunyu 12.1). This is not about total self-repression but rather learning to balance the needs of yourself, as an individual, within those of a community, family, society. The key importance of ritual and ceremony was seen by Confucius to be lost if one fails to enact them with sincerity, and with the underpinning of belief in duty towards others, as mentioned above.

This necessity for self-discipline was something also prevalent in Confucius’s political philosophizing, seeing it as a key characteristic necessary in any ruler who should govern by example. He stated, “If the people be led by laws, and uniformity among them be sought by punishments, they will try to escape punishment and have no sense of shame. If they are led by virtue, and uniformity sought among them through the practice of ritual propriety, they will possess a sense of shame and come to you of their own accord.” (Lunyu 2.3).  For Confucius there had been a complete breakdown in the politics of the time. He saw this as the result of the desire for titles and placement within the hierarchy of society becoming more important than the actualization and enactment of what that title means, i.e. being a good leader. What was critical for a leader was to live by ‘virtue’ and, in doing so, to gain a loyal and ordered following in a way that physical force would never achieve.  He argued “He who governs by means of his virtue is, to use an analogy, like the pole-star: it remains in its place while all the lesser stars do homage to it” (Lunyu 2.1.).

Education was of primary interest to Confucius. He saw it as a necessity that one should study and not simply base decisions on natural intuition. For Confucius, study involved finding a worthy teacher and imitating their deeds and thoughts. Again he emphasized the need for a teacher older than oneself who is versed in the practices and traditions of the ancients. But he also expected a sustained level of self-reflection on what was being taught, believing that “He who learns but does not think is lost. He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger” (Lunyu 2.15).

Another striking thing about Confucius is that he did not believe in a concrete and fixed system of morality. Instead he urged the constant education and critical appraisal of self and the world around you.  It was only through educating the self and gaining a deep, informed knowledge and judgment that one could skillfully navigate the world. Confucius was himself an avid teacher who required nothing more from a student than an eagerness and earnestness to learn. His “Six Arts” to be studied were computation, music, archery, calligraphy, ritual, and chariot riding. But for Confucius the most important area of study was morality. For this he believed that best reference was the Book of Songs, an Ancient Chinese classical work which serves as the earliest collection of Chinese poetry. This book was of particular importance to Confucius because he saw many of its poems as ‘beautiful and good’, capable of enlightening one about living well in society and cultivating vital qualities within oneself. 

With his teachings Confucius hoped to create a certain kind of moral person, one who had integrity and grace, and so he hoped to return civilization to a core system of values that he felt was missing.  Food for thought today, perhaps?

Confucius has remained influential and revered. Although he is studied all over the world his work has been particularly important to the Sinosphere (most notably in China itself) where many practice Confucianism. This is seen by many as arguably religious in nature – another debate for a later article. There is such an interest in his life and descendants that his genealogy has been tracked since his death and it is now considered one of the longest family trees in the world. It is currently documented at around the 83rd generation and monitored by the specially formed “Confucius Genealogy Compilation Committee”. Every year there are ceremonies in honor of Confucius,  and his hometown Qufu, particularly his grave, is a regular site for tourists and pilgrims.

Confucius was, and continues to be, an ideological leader whose practices inform and guide people in the hope that they will come to place emphasis on study, compassion, and humility. His was a noble understanding of humanity and one that is, by and large, still missing in much of mankind’s daily practice.

As Confucius said “By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”